It is an ironic time to be celebrating Thanksgiving, a sharing of the bounty of American farms and ranches among family, friends and neighbors. Not only are our traditional foods a fading feast, but fewer Americans than ever before may be able to access them. This year, while a million Americans may be losing their jobs, food prices have risen 5 to 7 percent; the use of food banks and food stamps is at a record high. The outlook for coming year is even more sobering: in August, the 2009 food prices projected to rise just 4.5 percent, but by early November, that projection was revised to go as a high as 7 percent. In short, more Americans may have meager feasts during Thanksgiving and the winter holidays than at any time since the Dust Bowl.
It is not that America is failing to produce food supplies sufficient to feed its populace; instead, we are feeding our vehicles foodstuffs that we should reserve for feeding our neighbors. The subsidized production of crops for biofuels has become the new driving force in shaping the price of grains such as corn. But putting the land’s productivity into fuel—not food—is only one of several problems being generated by our current agricultural policies.
In essence, the federal government has subsidized our food system’s addictions to both fossil groundwater and fuel, even though we now know that we will never again be able to pump as much of either as we have the last century. According to recent study in Environmental Science and Technology, the average American food now moves at least 1020 miles (from farmer to retailer) even before we drive our groceries home. But far more fuel and water are required to move all the inputs in our food system the 4200 miles it takes to make the total supply chain function. There is fossil groundwater and petroleum embedded in nearly every bite we eat from restaurants, cafeterias and grocery store chains.
Given our current economic instability, few Americans feel that this fuel-intensive, globalized food system is stable enough to feed the world. In a survey done this summer for the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, only 15 percent of respondents felt assured that the global food system is safe anymore. Nearly three-quarters of these respondents sense that local “foodsheds” will be more reliable in meeting the future nutritional needs of Americans. But to re-localize our food systems, we would need to grow in each foodshed a broader range of grains, vegetables, fruits and meats adapted to its climate, rather than getting our all fruits from California and all our beef from the Plains. Sadly, by sheer neglect of their value, we have put at risk nearly two-thirds of all the place-based heritage foods remaining on this continent.
To break our addiction to fuel and water, we must return to the locally-adapted heirloom seeds and heritage breeds that remain on our farms. To do so, Americans need to more fully value those farmers, ranchers, fishers, foragers and orchard-keepers who have kept the extant diversity of our place-based heritage foods alive. It is time to re-invest in the cornucopia of food plants and animals historically adapted to American places, and reward the farmers who are their stewards. Thanksgiving once showcased such regional food traditions, but it has somehow become too homogenized and remote from its sources.
Perhaps we need another national holiday to elevate these food issues. Fortunately, one is already emerging from the grassroots. Celebrations known as American Traditions Picnics have recently been held in at least a dozen places around the country, sponsored by Slow Food USA, the Chefs Collaborative and their many partners. We must now promote and proliferate such “down-home” picnics as means to honor farmers’ roles in bringing us the diversity of produce that can offer us true food security. We might be reminded at of the original intent of Thanksgiving: to bless the bounty that farmers of many cultures bring to us so, spared us of famine.
Dr. Gary Paul Nabhan is author of Where Our Food Comes From (Island Press) and founder-facilitator of the Renewing America’s Food Traditions initiative.